A philatelist is a person who studies or collects stamps. The term is most often used to refer to postage stamp collectors, but it can refer to any person concerned with the field of stamps, including stamps used for taxation and purposes other than postage. Philately dates back to the first postage stamps, which were issued in England in 1840; the term "philatelist" was coined in the 1860s. Many philatelists specialize in stamps of a specific design, type or history.
Postage stamps were introduced by the British government in 1840. Prior to this, most postal systems required the person receiving the letter to pay for its delivery, a process that was inefficient for all concerned. If the recipient could not or would not pay for a letter, it was returned, causing a loss for the postal service that had already invested time and transportation costs in its delivery. Stamps placed the responsibility of delivery costs on the sender and guaranteed that postal services would be paid for their efforts.
The first philatelist may have been British Museum official John Edward Gray, who saved the first British stamps for their historical significance. Most stamps featured specialized artwork and often included historic details about the issuing nation, so they soon attracted hobbyists with interests in art, history or government. The field of philately grew to include virtually any kind of postal memorabilia. In 1996, the U.S. Postal Service estimated there were more than a half-million dedicated stamp collectors in the United States alone.
A philatelist may not always fit potentially preconceived notions about stamp collectors. For example, a historian or archivist who studies stamps for a museum or postal service is also a philatelist. Some philatelists specialize in postcards, postmarks, stationery or non-postal seals that resemble stamps, called “Cinderella stamps” by philatelists. Still others collect or study the stamps used by non-postal authorities, such as those on tobacco products or governmental licenses.
Thousands of stamps are issued every year by governments around the world. Rather than try to collect them all, a philatelist may focus on a topic of special interest. For example, polar philatelists collect stamps issued or postmarked in the world’s polar regions. Other philatelists focus on stamps from particular countries or time periods, or that portray certain subjects, such as animals or famous writers. Pitcairn Island, a tiny British territory on a remote South Pacific island, makes a substantial part of its yearly budget from philatelists who desire its rare stamps.